Lethal legacy for the innocent victims of war

Army experts in crusade to help the children of Bosnia. Hazel Southam reports
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The Independent Online
IN THE central Bosnian town of Sipovo, 11-year-old Zora Kukilo has never heard of Diana, Princess of Wales, or her work against landmines. But her life may be saved because of that work.

Zora is among over 100 children who are being taught landmine awareness by the British Army. Her home and school were destroyed by Croats retreating from the area after the Dayton peace agreement two years ago.

She lives in the centre of a 500 square mile minefield. Army experts aren't sure of the exact number of mines which threaten the people of this poverty-stricken place, but there are an estimated 15 million in the country.

Zora has not yet seen a landmine. But she knows "they are dangerous," and would, she says, "go and tell Pete" if she found one.

Pete is Warrant Officer Pete Hammonds, who works with Staff Sgt Taff Meadows, of the Sixth Battalion REME, to educate the children about the hidden perils they face.

The children, mostly aged about seven years old, stand in an empty hall in their newly-rebuilt school. All that decorates it are a dozen pictures of Jesus, brown rabbits and fruit which they have drawn and glued to the windows.

They are dirty, poorly dressed, with blackened milk teeth, and small for their age. A few have bright eyes, but most have the glazed expression of children who have simply seen too much pain. Charity workers say that every family in Sipovo lost at least one member during the war.

Sgt Meadows explains how landmines can kill or maim, shows them what the devices look like, and tells them how to escape from a minefield should they inadvertently stumble into one.

"You must get some stones and put them on the floor to show everybody that this is a minefield," he explains. "You must go home and tell your parents or your teacher."

Sadly, it's not always as simple as that. Major Paul Sadler, anaesthetist at the nearly army field hospital, still remembers the day that a dozen children were rushed in having been injured while playing in a minefield. One six-year-old boy was dead on arrival, his right hand side blasted with shrapnel wounds. "It was very distressing. The injuries the landmine had caused were absolutely horrendous," he says.

Sgt Meadows asks his class if any of them have ever seen landmines before. Several report having seen devices in the nearby Muslim village of Volari, which comes as a shock as only yesterday we watched children playing in the rough ground around burnt-out houses in an area which an elderly villager had told us was safe.

This perhaps explains the key to the British Army's landmine training scheme. The children see landmines when they play and are now being trained to be their parents' teachers, warning the adults of hidden death traps.

"They are the future for Sipovo," says the troops' commander, Major Graham Belgum, himself a father of two young children. "We must ensure their survival and so we have a vital role to play in educating them about the landmines that they could discover. It's all about helping them have a future."

But there are massive hurdles to overcome. Sgt Meadows recalled talking a group of teenagers who said they helped their fathers plant landmines around their homes and land as a protection against the retreating Croats.

"Planting landmines is normal for them," says Sgt Meadows. "But I'm aiming at the children because they are the ones who will make changes in the future. Hopefully, when they are grown up they won't want to plant landmines any more."